Solo shot

Gary Louris leaves the Jayhawks behind
By MIKAEL WOOD  |  March 25, 2008

ALIVE AND WELL Louris’s desire to make music didn’t end with his old band.

Gary Louris had no grand designs for the beginning of his solo career. “The Jayhawks just seemed to have run their course,” he says of the long-running Minneapolis-based alt-country band he formed with Mark Olson in 1985. Olson left the group following 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, but Louris continued recording and touring with the Jayhawks for another decade; the band’s last studio disc, Rainy Day Music, came out in 2003. “We were running a bit on fumes,” he admits. “Not in terms of popularity or anything, but in terms of inspiration. It seems like there’s a certain lifespan for a band, and ours was longer than most.” What hadn’t run its course was Louris’s desire to keep making music. “So I just decided to use my own name.”

Louris’s new Vagabonds (Rykodisc) sounds like the child of such low-key circumstances, a warm set of cozy folk-rock jams that won’t shock Jayhawks fans. He recorded the CD in LA: Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes produced (with help from Thom Monahan, a former Pernice Brother who’s helmed records by Devendra Banhart and Brightblack Morning Light), members of the Black Crowes and San Francisco’s Vetiver serve as the backing band, and Susanna Hoffs, Johnathan Rice, the Chapin Sisters, and Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis all contribute backing vocals as the so-called Laurel Canyon Family Choir.

Louris says Vagabonds had a couple of “false starts” in his basement studio in Minneapolis. “I felt a little bit unsure about what I was doing. I needed someone to help me navigate the forest, to figure out which songs to do and how to do them.” He’d known Robinson since 1991. “We’re good friends and we think a lot alike. Even though we’re different on the outside, we come from the same place inside.”

On Louris’s current tour, which hits the Somerville Theatre Tuesday, Vetiver will be his backing band. (Pedal-steel player Eric Heywood, on loan from Ray LaMontagne’s group, is also part of the ensemble.) Louris says he likes the idea of “a guy hooking up with a band. It’s not like throwing five strangers in a room and you all have to figure out where you fit in.”

Vetiver frontman Andy Cabic says learning to back up another singer-songwriter wasn’t much of a trick: Cabic also plays with Banhart, and Vetiver’s music “isn’t far off in the spectrum of sounds” from what the Jayhawks did. What was a challenge, he admits with a laugh, was learning roughly 30 songs — the Vagabonds material, as well as Jayhawks tunes and a handful of covers — during a single week of rehearsals in Minneapolis prior to the tour’s first stop in Denver on March 23. He says the live arrangements are “a little more simplified” than those on the album; with no keyboard player on board, “the mixture is more guitar-heavy and sounds less produced.”

Looking beyond Vagabonds, Louris says his goal as a solo artist is “to make more records more often. I have a lot of material, and I’m just trying to figure out the musical waters here.” Some of his demos lean in a more modern-sounding pop direction, he says; some feature lots of synthesizers. “I don’t write songs with any particular purpose. I’m not one of those people who goes to the office every morning and writes no matter what. I have to feel that the muse is with me. I hear something, then I write it.”

GARY LOURIS | Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville | April 1 | 617.931.2000

Related: Review: Mark Olson and Gary Louris, Ready for the Flood (New West), Vetiver + Phosphorescent, Fly by night?, More more >
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